If you pay attention to weather forecasts, you have probably heard of the “El Nino” (Spanish for “The nino”). 2015 has seen the development of a massive El Nino, which could have a major effect on our country’s winter. To get you ready for winter, and to prepare your expectations, keep reading. We’ve got everything you need to know (and more) about El Nino!
What is El Nino?
El Nino is a pattern of abnormally warm water that forms in the Pacific. Depending on the location and strength of an El Nino, it can have a variety of different weather effects (more on that later). El Nino’s formation affects the global atmospheric circulation that plays a large part in dictating seasonal climate across the world. The season where there is the biggest effect is winter. During summer there are lots of small events like thunderstorms that dictate weather patterns, but during winter most storms come from these global currents, which is also why winter can generally be predicted with more certainty than summer. So, El Nino isn’t a storm or a set of storms, it’s a climate variable that shifts weather patterns for an extended period of time.
How likely is it to affect the U.S.?
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) currently gives a 95% chance that strong El Nino effects will continue throughout the winter. Exactly how it will affect us is a larger debate, for a couple of reasons. The first is that the strength, size, and location of an El Nino change the resulting weather patterns. The second is that predictions on the actual effects of the El Nino vary based on where you look. And the third is that there is another, separate “blob” of warming water north of El Nino that could have additional affects beyond just a regular El Nino. The less conservative predictions, however, think that this could be one of the biggest El Nino events yet.
What will the main changes in our weather patterns be?
Despite possible variation in the strength and overall affects of the El Nino, we can provide a generalization based on years past as to what will happen. The first and most immediate difference, for the Atlantic United States, is that hurricane season becomes quite a bit milder. El Nino and the changing wind patterns make it harder for storms to form and strengthen in the Atlantic, but amps up the Hurricanes on the west.
While winter should start fairly mild across the board, moving into the middle and end of winter there should be some noticeable regional differences in temperature and precipitation.
Overall, the Northwest (out through Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota) should have a relatively dry and warm winter. The Southeast, because of the shift in wind patterns, will probably have a colder-than-normal winter, seeing some freezing days and possibly even some snow. The Southwest and Northeast should have normal temperatures, but also see higher-than-average precipitation. It should be a wet winter in Southern California, which will hopefully provide some relief from the drought there, but that relief won’t extend very far North. In New England, brace for another year with the possibility of big snow, although a winter like last is statistically unlikely.
Sooo…. What does that mean for snowsports enthusiasts?
Whether you ski, snowboard, or snowmobile, this is going to be a hot-or-cold winter, depending on where you live. The normally-stable Northwest could be looking at a down year, while snow-starved California should have a normal-to-good year in snow. Tahoe is right on the borderline of the predicted heavy-precipitation zone, and should see some benefit. Meanwhile, Colorado should be fairly normal snow-wise, but also stands to be a warmer winter, which may lead to a less consistent snowpack.
The Northeast could be the biggest benefactor of El Nino. An above-average precipitation year is expected, which should bring more snow to northern New England. Whether or not southern New England sees a higher snowfall depends on temperature. While it should be cold and snowy late winter, precipitation may come more in the form of rain earlier in the season.
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Feature photograph from: https://www.climate.gov/sites/default/files/August2015_SSTA_large.png